Posts tagged video games
I watched the Stargate film back in 1994 when it came to theatres, and then when Stargate: SG-1 came around, I didn’t bother watching it. I watched a season-and-a-half or so of Stargate:Atlantis, and was usually amused. But I have many friends who swear by various parts of the Stargate-verse, loving SG-1 and trashing on Atlantis, loving-but-criticizing-Atlantis and not caring about SG-1, etc.
So when I saw that there was a new, supposedly stand-alone Stargate series, I took notice. The casting of Robert Carlyle in the lead went a long way towards getting my attention, as did the concept.
For those not already in the know, here’s the breakdown: Stargate Universe is about a group of people who get trapped on an ancient spaceship made by a predecessor species only known as the Ancients. The ship was designed to tour the universe, and from time to time opens up a dimensional portal (the Stargates, natch) to a habitable planet in the surrounding galaxy. The Stargate remains open for a finite amount of time, and the ship is on auto-pilot, preventing the heroes from taking control of its route. Using the gate to get back to Earth or to get from Earth to the ship (called the Destiny) is tremendously-plot-says-don’t-do-it difficult. The tone seems to be substantially darker than previous Stargate series, prompting people to dub it Stargate Galactica or BattleStargate, likening it to the critically-acclaimed 2004-09 Battlestar Galactica.
The overall formula seems to be (Stargate + LOST) x (Sliders + Battlestar Galacatica) = Stargate Universe — which is certainly not a bad mixture of inspirations.
A more detailed and spoilery review follows:
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
The Cake is a Lie.
Underneath a clever physics game is gleeful homicidal glee with a cute voice. Valve’s Portal, originally packaged in with Half-Life: The Orange Box, is a gem of a game that earned countless accolades last year.
Portal takes the simple idea of a two-way portal gun and makes a whole (if short) game around it, showing off their physics engine and their dark sense of humor.
In Portal, the closest thing you get to a weapon is the portal gun, which can shoot at a plane and create a portal on that plane, which connects to the other end of the portal, which you also deploy. This lets you get up high to push buttons, or to send plasma balls around corners to activate switches, or to jump through the portal so you can jump through the portal again and use the accumulated velocity to jump up to new platforms. The game is a clear test of the user’s physics knowledge and critical/spatial problem solving skills.
I also think it should be used in Physics classes world-wide, as possible. The idea of vectors, conservation of momentum, and many other principles of physics are at work in Portal.
But if Portal were just a physics tutorial in game form, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun. Along the way, your guide/host/jailkeeper is GlaDOS, an erratic computer that talks you through the early puzzles, unraveling to reveal its sadistic streak and its nature as the architect of countless attempts on your character’s life. Physics experiments to test the portal gun and human ingenuity give way to the increasingly dangerous tests, where the player is prompted to design complex plans of layered portal use, planning several steps ahead.
Portal is the exact kind of video game that Steven Johnson (of Everything Bad is Good For You) declares as laudable — not only does the player have to explore and probe the world of the game, they are forced to think critically, implement their spatial awareness/intelligence, and are rewarded for their cleverness but also their curiosity, as occasional glimpses behind the curtains reveal previous test-subjects desperate scrawlings on the walls between the test areas, writings that indicate GlaDOS’s hidden agenda, the virtues of the companion cube (a weighted cube that is used as the only other tool at the character’s disposal), and most of all, that
The Cake is a Lie.
“Still Alive,” the game’s theme song, has become a geek music classic, makings its way through the livejournal/blogosphere shortly after the game’s release, and helping to catapult Geek Rocker Jonathan Coulton (who wrote the song) into the limelight within the subculture. Another indicator of “Still Alive”‘s fan appeal can be seen in the fact that it was released as a free downloadable track for the game Rock Band.
The game is now available for download on XBox Live arcade, which is how I played it. It is more than a mere tech demo wrapped in a thin game shell, and that elevation is thanks to tone and style– if GlaDOS had been unironic and uninflected, she/it would have been just another stereotypical computer-gone-evil. Instead, she has earned a place as an iconic computer-gone-evil, appearing beside favorites such as HAL9000
Everything interesting about Portal adds up to a charmingly demented game that will make you laugh while you’re running around trying not to get blown up and figuring out how to arrange portals so you can get to the next room.